Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party. You hear that, Bill Bradley?

Bill Bradley declines to run for president because his "internal clock" tells him he isn't ready. Mario Cuomo declines to run for president because, well, just because. Sam Nunn declines to run for president because it would conflict with his duties as senator. Dale Bumpers declines to run because he doesn't want to disrupt his family life.

It's the year of the shrinking violets. In the first presidential campaign with no incumbent in almost three decades, the most promising Democrats declare that their dance cards are full. And the louder they insist they're not interested, the louder is the clamor for them to change their minds. Their very unavailability adds to their appeal. This is not just because forbidden fruit tastes sweeter in the mind, but because of a widespread sense that there is something noble, inspiring -- something downright presidential -- about not wanting to run for president.

Writing 12 years ago in the Washington Monthly, Walter Shapiro called this "the myth of the White Knight." It's the belief that the "perfect presidential candidate {is} just waiting in the wings, far too sensitive to declare himself and come right out on stage."

There is a non-candidate for every taste. The demurral that disappoints me the most is Bradley's. His views on issues are much to my liking, and yet he is wildly admired by people whose views are not to my liking at all. He is a serious person who overcomes that handicap by having been a basketball star. Honest, reflective, liberal, electable: an enticing combination. But this "internal clock" malarkey makes him less enticing, not more so.

All of this year's non-candidates are sincere in their lack of interest, I think, and not just engaged in a baroque campaign ploy. But Bradley, at least, clearly does want to be president -- just not yet. Cuomo also clearly wants to be president, but he has tied himself into so many knots with moral posturing that he can't stand up straight and ask for it. Nunn is on a respect high in the Senate, and isn't sure he wants to come down.

I'm sorry, this won't do. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party. Bradley may be ready in 1992 or 1996, but his party needs him in 1988. In 1992 either there will be a Democratic incumbent or the Republicans will have won five of the past six presidential elections. Now is the Democrats' best opportunity in years -- possibly their best opportunity for years to come -- and Bradley is the Democrats' best hope.

Both Bradley and Cuomo get a lot of credit for being in politics to serve long-held ideas and values, not just personal ambition. The best chance for Democratic values, rather than Republican values, to guide the nation for the coming years is for Bradley to run. What does it say about his alleged commitment to these values, or Cuomo's, that these gentlemen would rather preen on their personality quirks than help their party recapture the White House?

Modesty is appealing, of course, and so is the myth of Cincinnatus -- the man who has to be begged to accept power and hands it back at the first opportunity. But these men are not generals, they are professional politicians. If political power doesn't interest them, what are they in it for? As for modesty, how modest can a successful politician actually be? It's a modesty of awfully fine calibration that says: I'm worthy of being senator or governor, but not of being president.

What's more, someone is going to be the Democratic nominee for president and someone is going to be sworn in 19 months from now. It's swell to be humbled by the awesome responsibilities of the presidency. But does Bill Bradley really feel humble in comparison to Joe Biden or Dick Gephardt? Does Mario Cuomo really feel morally unworthy of standing in the shoes of Bob Dole or George Bush? That much humility is excessive.

Running for president requires an appalling sacrifice of time, energy, dignity, family life and possibly sanity. But refusing to make this sacrifice is hardly a qualification for having the prize handed to you on a platter, or a credit to be saved in case you change your mind in the future.

After the flaccid patriotism of the Reagan years, in which Americans were called upon to accept tax cuts and cheap military victories for the good of their country, the citizenry is ready for a sterner call to idealism and even sacrifice. Bill Bradley and Mario Cuomo are just the sort of leaders who could make this call convincing. But will people respond to such a challenge from someone who won't sacrifice his dignity for his values, or who is too absorbed listening to the tick-tock of his "internal clock" to notice that a historic opportunity is slipping away?

Democratic voters need to send a message to all the shrinking violets, but especially to Bill Bradley. Look, big fella: don't run if you don't want to. But don't come looking for us when you decide that you are ready. We're ready now.